Ed Moran | No plans to trade Pitkanen? Hmmm . . .

Posted: June 19, 2007

THE QUESTION to Paul Holmgren was simple enough.

It was about Joni Pitkanen, the lone Flyers restricted free agent not yet signed to a new contract. Was there any update?

The way Holmgren dished out the answer, and the ones to questions that followed, was equally simple.

The Flyers would take their young defenseman to arbitration and the price of a new contract was now out of their hands. Rather than get into a lengthy contract negotiation, they would have him locked up in August in time to get him back from Finland and into camp for such a critical year.

No, the Flyers' general manager said, there is no intention to trade him at the entry draft this weekend in Columbus, and no, the Flyers have not given up on the fourth overall pick from the 2002 draft.

"That's not anything we'd be interested in doing," Holmgren said about trading Pitkanen. "I just think he's a top young defenseman."

Believe that if you want.

Listening to Holmgren and knowing that the Flyers still have holes to fill - despite acquiring defenseman Kimmo Timonen and forward Scott Hartnell yesterday - and knowing there are just as many questions surrounding Pitkanen's development, it was hard to listen without a skeptical ear.

That's not to call Holmgren a liar. Everything he said was true. He does think Pitkanen is a top young defenseman, they have filed for arbitration and right now - emphasis on right now - there is no trade offer on the table that interests him.

But I can't help remembering all the questions about Peter Forsberg this past winter, and about how Holmgren insisted the Flyers were focused on solving his foot problems and keeping him while at the same time talking with Anaheim's Brian Burke about trading him.

Holmgren was playing his cards the right way, then and now, keeping them close while thinking about what moves he would really make. One way to look at what he had just said was, "Hey everybody, Pitkanen is available."

Holmgren is good at not showing what he is thinking. Even as he was saying he didn't know what the Flyers would do with the second pick in the draft, he was finalizing the dual 6-year contracts for Timonen and Hartnell. He was even called from his predraft interview by team cap specialist Barry Hanrahan. He just grinned when someone suggested he was cutting a deal.

So when he says he doesn't want to move Pitkanen, well, take it with a grain of salt.

If the Flyers wanted the 23-year-old Finn badly enough, they would have signed him the way they did the other restricted free agents - including goalie Antero Niittymaki.

Pitkanen could end up back with the Flyers next season, but my firm belief is that would only happen if there are no interested teams, and there are.

Or at least there were earlier this year when the Flyers, by Holmgren's estimation, had at least 14 calls from other teams about the possibility of trading Pitkanen.

But now is different.

The Flyers are out of time. That's the bottom line. There is no more room to let Pitkanen grow on his own schedule.

He was a top prospect when he was drafted and he has shown signs that he can be the player he was originally forecast to be.

Last season was bad for just about every player, but Pitkanen might have been exposed more than others. He scored points, 43 on 39 assists and four goals, but he was wildly inconsistent and often seemed confused when he was in the offensive zone.

He developed a habit of skating the puck in deep, looking good in the process, but not accomplishing much more than going down the wall and behind the net where he would turn it over.

As the season progressed he became a turnover liability in his own end as well. Even more puzzling was the fact that when pressed about his game, he would often answer that he thought he was playing well.

But even as he gave those answers, Pitkanen seemed to withdraw from the team outside of the rink even more than he had in his first years.

There is a very good chance that he will bloom on the right team, among players who can carry the defensive load and allow the young Finn the chance to be just an offensive player.

But the Flyers just don't have that kind of time. Their immediate need - coming out of a devastating, franchise-worst season - is to improve right now.

And because of that, the likelihood that Pitkanen will not be a Flyer by the end of the week is very good. With the second pick overall and three in the third round, the Flyers will be willing to package Pitkanen and some picks for the right player.

The feeling within the organization is that Pitkanen will most likely be a good player, but not with the Flyers. Holmgren explained that by filing with the league for arbitration, he can avoid a lengthy contract negotiation. He dodged questions about not wanting to pay Pitkanen less than the $2 million he made last season and said the move simply "ensures that we will have him under contract by August."

Don't believe it.

The Flyers made significant headway yesterday, nailing the defenseman they had at the top of their list and adding a forward they have wanted for a while.

It gives them a chance to focus on a top center, like Daniel Briere, Scott Gomez or Chris Drury. But they still need more.

So don't take what Holmgren is saying about Pitkanen. The kid is available. And if you ask Holmgren straight up if Pitkanen can't be traded, you'll get a better look at what is going on.

"I don't think we have a player on our team where we could say 'under no circumstances.' " *

Send email to morane@phillynews.com

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